Described as an emulsion “based on beeswax as emulsifier and thickener” (deNavarre, 1941, p. 237) these creams have a long history of cosmetic use. The first cold cream has been attributed to the Roman physician Galen in AD 150; reputedly he made a primitive water-in-oil emulsion by mixing water into molten beeswax and olive oil. It was laborious to make, required a great deal of mixing and was unstable. Despite these drawbacks the formulation persisted – generally using rose-water and/or oil of roses as a perfume – and appeared in the first edition of the ‘Pharmacopœa Londinensis’ in 1618.
In later formulations, sweet almond oil replaced the olive oil.
4 oz. of the purest almond oil.
1¼ oz. of white wax.
2 oz. of diluted rose-water.
A few drops of pure essential oil of roses.
Vegetable oils like almond oil are liable to deteriorate when they are mixed with water. Although preservatives could be added to cold creams, early forms had limited effectiveness. Their short shelf life meant that cold creams were usually made up at home or purchased in small quantities, freshly made up by a local pharmacist/chemist/druggist, the discarded pots of which turn up frequently in Victorian era rubbish tips.
Nearly all creams sold in stores become rancid, and in this state are irritating to the skin instead of soothing. It is better to make your own creams. It can be done with very little trouble and at small expense.
For years a prominent society lady, noted for her exquisite skin and complexion, has used a cream made from the following recipe:
1 oz. Spermaceti.
1 oz. White Wax.
1 oz. Benzoated Lard.
2 oz. Almond Oil.
¼ oz. Camphor Gum.
Dissolve the camphor gum in the oil, and add the other ingredients, heating the whole only to melt. When melted, beat with a fork for one hour, or until perfectly cold, white and creamy. In using it the face must be perfectly free from dust or any foreign matter. Take a small quantity on the tips of the fingers, and spread on the face and neck, rubbing until the cream is absorbed by the skin. The almond oil spreads very easily, and a very little of the cream will cover the face and neck. The face becomes soft and velvety almost immediately. A very fine effect is produced by rubbing the “shine” off with a soft flannel dipped in powder. Using powder in this manner not only produces a better effect, but the skin is not injured by the powder.
Perhaps the only advantage of a short shelf life was that it enabled the local pharmacist/chemist/druggist to alter the formula of their cold creams slightly according to the season; to increase the proportion of wax in summer so the cream was more viscous in the warmer weather and conversely using less wax during the winter when the cold weather would tend to harden the cream.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw two advances in cold cream formulations that together enabled them to be manufactured on an industrial scale. The first was the replacement of almond oil by petrolatum and mineral oil; the second, the inclusion of borax (sodium borate) into the formulation.
In 1869, Robert Chesebrough extracted petrolatum from crude petroleum and began selling it under the trade name Vaseline Petroleum Jelly. Once established, Chesebrough produced a range of products made with petrolatum including Vaseline Cold Cream. Petrolatum has a much longer shelf life than almond oil and was a good deal cheaper.
Also see: Petrolatum/Petroleum Jelly
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, borax was also introduced into cold creams. A formula for a borax cold cream was incorporated into the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1890 and then into the British Pharmacopoeia in 1914 (deNavarre, 1941). However, the first report of its use appears to have been Adoph Vomacka in ‘New Remedies’, in September 1883. The 1885 report below is a repeat of part of that entry.
Cold Cream—Improved Method of Manipulation.—Mr. Ad. Vomacka communicates the following formula and directions for cold cream:
White wax 200 parts. Spermaceti 500 parts. Oil of almonds, expressed 1600 parts. Rose water 80 parts. Oil of rose, for each 2.4 kilos 30 drops.
Melt the wax and spermaceti at a gentle heat on the water-bath, pour the mass into a very shallow, warmed porcelain dish, and let it stand over night covered with paper. Next morning, begin to work the hardened mass by a gentle, uniform to-and-fro motion of the pestle, which should be held lightly between the fingers without exerting pressure, commencing at the edge, gradually working towards the middle, and mixing the whole thoroughly.
The prescribed amount of rose water is now slowly added, in a thin stream, and while constantly stirring. If desired, 5 grms. of borax may be dissolved in the rose water, which will facilitate the combination. [my italics] The mortar is now well covered and set aside for one or two days, in order to give the fat a chance to combine with the water. It is then again briskly stirred for a quarter or half an hour, and finally, the oil of rose is added, previously dissolved in a little castor oil, which later imparts to the cold cream an extremely handsome lustre.
The readiness with which the cold cream becomes rancid or acid makes it advisable to add some suitable preservative, if it is to be kept for any length of time. A very good method is to add a small quantity of salicylic acid dissolved in rose water or sweet spirits of nitre.
Borax interacts with free fatty acids in beeswax and forms a soap that acts as an emulsifying agent. This makes the oil and water less likely to separate on standing, so cold creams made with borax were more stable.
Borax-beeswax cold creams were white, opaque, had a high lustre and spread easily on the skin, but the use of almond oil meant they still had a relatively short shelf life. However, when borax-beeswax cold creams made with petrolatum and mineral oil rather than almond oil, cold creams were produced that were stable, cheaper and had a long shelf life, making them ideal preparations for industrial manufacture and distribution. A sample recipe is given below:
White beeswax 22.0% White mineral oil 50.8% Distilled water 26.0% Borax 0.8% Perfume 0.4%
The first commercial cold cream of this type appears to have been Daggett & Ramsdell‘s Perfect Cold Cream, manufactured in New York from 1890. Other commercial cold creams followed, including one by Pond’s, a name that would become almost synonymous with cold cream.
Pond’s Type o/w Face Cream
Ingredient Wt. % Beeswax 8.00 Mineral oil (paraffinum liquidum) 50.00 Lanolin 3.00 Borax 0.20 Water (aqua) qs 100.00
Procedure: Heat oils to 80°C. Heat water and add borax to 70°C. Add oils to the water with rapid mixing, cool to 40°C and add fragrance.
Beeswax-borax cold creams were usually made as water-in-oil (W/O) emulsions. After the creams are applied to the skin much of the water evaporates leaving the remaining oil to act as a solvent which cleanses the skin of cosmetics and other grime. There may also be some surfactant activity. Some chemists suggested that as the water evaporates it cooled the skin and that this is the reason the creams are called ‘cold creams’. An alternative explanation is that in the days before mineral oil was used, the creams needed to be stored in a cool place to stop them going rancid. This made them cold to the touch and so gave them their name.
Cold creams that contained a high percentage of mineral oil (liquid paraffin) or petrolatum were regarded primarily as cleansers, to be spread on thickly and then removed with a cloth or tissues. However, depending on the formulation, they could be used for a variety of purposes and were often advertised as beauty creams.
City air in Europe and the U.S.A. was a good deal grimier than it is today which meant that dust, soot and other particulate matter collected on the face making it an enduring problem. Early advertisements for cold cream stressed the need to “cleanse your skin of all the dirt which lodges in the pores through the day, and which, more than anything else, injures the skin” (Pond’s advertisement, 1917). It was also recommended that the cream be used at night to give it additional time to act.
The Cold Cream, applied whenever convenient during the day, always after exposure to the open air and before retiring at night, brings to the surface particles of dust and dirt which can easily be removed with a soft towel. Its gentle oils will sink deep into the pores especially during sleep and cleanse the skin thoroughly.
As the use of cosmetics increased, cold creams were also promoted as a way to help remove face powder, lipstick, rouge, foundation and other make-up.
An early competitor for cold cream cleansers was soap. A lot of early advertising by cosmetic companies was aimed at persuading consumers that using soap and water on their face was either not enough or downright harmful. A Marie Earle advertisement proclaimed “Don’t wash your face recklessly with soap and water, which … may dry and roughen and wrinkle your skin” (Marie Earle advertisement, 1927). Coty exclaimed that their cold creams “cleanse the pores thoroughly of dust, cosmetics and excess oil – which do not yield to water alone” (Coty advertisement, 1928). Despite these advertising warnings it is probable that most women used both; that it was “common practice with many women to use a cold cream first for makeup removal, and then to complete the cleansing process by using soap” (Sagarin, 1957, p. 81).
Cold creams formed the basis of early beauty regimes like those developed by Pond’s, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and others. By establishing a daily regime, cosmetic companies hoped they would increase the usage of their creams and widen consumer consumption to entire product lines.
Applying cold cream before sleep to remove the dirt, grime, and cosmetics of the day became a habit for many women. It cleansed the skin and, if not removed with soap and water, left a thin film with moisturising properties. If it was doing something else while you slept, so much the better; one wonders, for example, how many women discovered that leaving it liberally on their face when they retired, helped them avoid the ‘ministrations’ of their husbands, enabling them to get a night of uninterrupted sleep.
Since the cream will appear greasy even after an application of cold cream is wiped off with a soft towel, it is best for the sake of one’s friends to apply it at night, although husbands have been know to object to the procedure.
Adding ingredients like lanolin in the 1920s enabled manufacturers to make additional claims. As substances like lanolin were thought to have ‘nutritive’ value, cold creams of this type were also promoted as ‘skin foods’.
Pond’s cold cream – a food and cleanser for tired pores – should be gently massaged into the face, neck hands and arms each night on retiring. Because it supplements the natural oil of the skin it aids in preventing and eradicating little lines that time and care are constantly trying to etch around the eyes and mouth. Pond’s Creams never promote the growth of hair.
Also see: Skin Foods
The general purpose nature of cold cream, which had been its strength, was also its weakness. The recognition of different skin types and skin conditions along with the proliferation of skin creams containing ‘beneficial additives’ saw the need for a general purpose skin cream decline. This fracturing of the commercial skin-care market – begun with the introduction of stearate (vanishing) creams in 1892 – picked up pace in the 1920s and 1930s, eroded sales of cold creams and pushed them increasingly into the low-end of the skin-care market.
Also see: Vanishing Creams
The development of specialist cleansers also reduced the appeal of cold cream as a cleanser as well. Starting with liquefying cleansing creams introduced in the 1920s, alternative skin cleansers for different skin types and specific skin problems increasingly appeared on the market, further diminishing the use of cold creams.
Also see: Liquefying Cleansing Creams
Although the use of cold creams has declined, they are still available. However, when modern products are compared to the original formulations marked differences are evident, primarily in the replacement of borax with modern surfactants.
Pond’s Cold Cream Cleanser
Ingredients: Mineral oil, Water, Ceresin, Beeswax, Triethanolamine, Ceteth-20, Fragrance, Behenic acid, Montan wax, Cetyl alcohol, Carbomer, DMDM hydantoin, Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate.
Improvements in preservatives have also allowed some to avoid the use of mineral oil, a substance disliked by many consumers.
Weleda Cold Cream
Ingredients: Water (aqua), Prunus amygdalus dulcis (sweet almond) oil, Arachis hypogaea (peanut) oil, Beeswax (cera flava), Glyceryl linoleate, Fragrance (parfum), Hectorite, Limonene, Linalool, Citronellol, Geraniol, Citral.
Still others have such complex formulations that they appear to have little relationship to traditional cold creams at all.
Avene Cold Cream Ultra Rich Cleansing Gel
Ingredients: Avene Thermal Spring Water (Avene Aqua), Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Seed Oil (Carthamus Tinctorius Seed Oil), Mineral Oil (Paraffinum Liquidum), Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil (Cocos Nucifera Oil), Cyclopentasiloxane, Sesamum Indicum (Sesame) Seed Oil (Sesamum Indicum Seed Oil), Sorbitan Stearate, Cyclohexasiloxane, Glyceryl Stearate, Peg-100 Stearate, Allantoin, Beeswax (Cera Alba), Benzoic Acid, Cetyl Alcohol, Citric Acid, Fragrance (Parfum), Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Hydroxide, Sodium Polyacrylate, Tetrasodium Edta, Water (Aqua).
Updated: 7th February 2014
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Phillips, M. C. (1934). Skin deep: The truth about beauty aids. New York: Garden City Publishing.
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